A former Desertmartin woman has been named as one of the most influential nurses in the history of the NHS.
Heather Monteverde, who is head of services for Macmillan Cancer Support in Northern Ireland, is one of just 70 pioneering nurses and midwives profiled in a special Nursing Standard publication.
'70 NHS Years: A Celebration of 70 Influential Nurses and Midwives from 1948 to 2018' was publicised to mark the 70th birthday of the National Health Service.
The eldest of six children and raised on the family farm, Heather was Head Girl of Rainey Endowed Grammar School in Magherafelt. She had intended to study English at Edinburgh University, only to change her mind, deciding instead to become a nurse. She studied oncology, becoming Northern Ireland’s first specialist breast care nurse before joining Macmillan. In 2012 she was awarded an MBE for services to cancer in Northern Ireland.
We spoke to Heather about her journey from her upbringing on the family farm to this remarkable recognition from the NHS.
“I was brought up on the family farm on Roshure Road in Desertmartin and am the eldest daughter of George and Ann Johnston. I had a very normal childhood - I particularly loved being part of a large extended family. Growing up, I was very involved in church activities and was a member of the Girl’s Brigade in Tobermore, which I really enjoyed. As we got older, our entertainment turned to going to ‘socials’ in places like the McKinney Hall in Tobermore and in Drumbolg!”
Heather enjoyed her education and showed promise from an early age, crediting a number of teachers for their encouragement.
“I always loved school. I attended Cranny Primary School where I stayed until P6, then moved to Magherafelt Primary School, and finally to Rainey in September 1974. I remember my cousin Charles meeting me at the school gates and bringing me in on my first day! I felt very privileged to become Head Girl in 1980/1981."
“Like most people of my age who attended Rainey, the teachers that stood out were Headmistress Dorothy Madden and Deputy Principle, George Johnston. I also have fond memories of my English teacher Mrs Neill and Margaret Regan, a music teacher and head of the school choir. One of my happiest memories was being in the junior and senior choir in school and being part of the annual Christmas concert with the orchestra.”
A busy, talented and well-respected student, Heather recalls that her decision to study nursing didn’t go down particularly well.
“At the time, there was a clear focus on university and I applied to study English at Edinburgh University. Halfway through my last year of school, I decided to become a nurse. The decision came out of nowhere and caused a bit of a flurry! I vividly remember a teacher telling me that I was wasting my education and that I would spend the rest of my life emptying bed pans and mopping up blood! Thankfully that didn’t deter me and I applied to the Ulster Hospital to carry out a combined four-year course in adult and children’s nursing. I was accepted a week before I got my A-Level results - when I still had the option of going to university - but I'd made my decision to go into nursing and I have never once regretted it."
Just as she’d made an impact at school, it’s fair to say Heather quickly became a well-regarded member of her profession, eventually becoming the first specialist breast cancer nurse in Northern Ireland.
“I qualified as a registered nurse in 1984 and as a registered sick children’s nurse in 1985. There was a particular instance when I was working on a ward with a man who was dying from cancer. It really affected me and prompted my interest in cancer care. In 1986, I started oncology training at Belvoir Park Hospital, and was then appointed as the first cancer nurse specialist in Northern Ireland.
"I specialised in breast cancer and developed that service in the Ulster Hospital for 9 years, influencing the development of similar roles across Northern Ireland. I then moved into the pharmaceutical industry as an oncology nurse adviser. While I was working full time, I started a degree at Queen’s University in Health Studies. It was challenging as I had 2 young children at the time but it was all worth it when I graduated."
In 1999, Heather joined Macmillan Cancer Support as a nurse consultant, working in a variety of roles before becoming Head of Services for Northern Ireland. The local charity provides a range of services and support for people living with cancer. These include over 100 Macmillan nurses across the 5 health trusts; a Northern Ireland-wide Macmillan Welfare Advice Service which helped almost 9,000 people to access financial support last year; local information and support services including the new purpose-built Macmillan Support Centre at Altnagelvin; and the Move More initiative (in partnership with local councils) which helps people to get active and stay active after a cancer diagnosis.
As for being told she was to be recognised as one of the 70 most influential nurses in the history of the NHS, Heather’s reaction was one of huge surprise and gratitude. It also vindicated her decision to choose a career in nursing.
“I think for once I was speechless! I am not usually lost for words but I was taken aback, really over whelmed and felt very humbled to have such recognition from my nursing peers. If I had to do it all over again, I would absolutely choose the same career path. I’m a nurse through and through and will always feel proud to be so. In the last 30 years, I’ve gained invaluable experience of the public, private and voluntary sectors. I have met and cared for many inspirational people and to have witnessed the phenomenal changes in cancer care has been a real privilege.”
As for advice from Heather, what would she say to anyone reading considering a profession in nursing?
"I would tell any young person to go for it. There are so many different specialisms available and lots of opportunities to learn, develop and progress, and to really make a difference in people’s lives. It can be challenging, yes, but nursing is a profession that is there 24/7; from birth to death, through the bad times and the good times."
To find out more about the work of Macmillan Cancer Support in Northern Ireland visit www.macmillan.org.uk